Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Political Science and Voter Ignorance

Once upon a time, I was an interdisciplinary social science undergrad. What does that mean? It means I spent 3 years studying political science, political philosophy, and history, then dropped out to become a stand up comic. Political scientists are a strange breed. In large part, they study voter behavior in all its aspects. What different types of voters are there? Obviously there is a range, from the highly committed partisan to the typical undecided voter. What motivates them, where they get the information that shapes their eventual choice of who to vote for, how coherent are their policy preferences – these are the types of questions that political scientists attempt to answer using the tools of their trade. Louis Menand has a fascinating article in the New Yorker about what decades of such study has shown us.

How do voters decide who to vote for? Ideally, each person knows the policy positions taken by rival candidates, understands the issues involved, evaluates whose positions are more likely to have positive results and votes accordingly. Then again, let’s talk about the real world:

When pollsters ask people for their opinion about an issue, people generally feel obliged to have one. Their answer is duly recorded, and it becomes a datum in a report on “public opinion.” But, after analyzing the results of surveys conducted over time, in which people tended to give different and randomly inconsistent answers to the same questions, Converse concluded that “very substantial portions of the public” hold opinions that are essentially meaningless–off-the-top-of-the-head responses to questions they have never thought about, derived from no underlying set of principles. These people might as well base their political choices on the weather. And, in fact, many of them do.

Findings about the influence of the weather on voter behavior are among the many surveys and studies that confirm Converse’s sense of the inattention of the American electorate. In election years from 1952 to 2000, when people were asked whether they cared who won the Presidential election, between twenty-two and forty-four per cent answered “don’t care” or “don’t know.” In 2000, eighteen per cent said that they decided which Presidential candidate to vote for only in the last two weeks of the campaign; five per cent, enough to swing most elections, decided the day they voted.

Thus, public opinion is highly fluid and prone to swings based on things other than an informed evaluation of the issues. Why is this? Primarily because most people just don’t know much about the issues, and their lack of understanding is so ingrained that they can’t give consistent answers to questions with just a slight change in wording:

Seventy per cent of Americans cannot name their senators or their congressman. Forty-nine per cent believe that the President has the power to suspend the Constitution. Only about thirty per cent name an issue when they explain why they voted the way they did, and only a fifth hold consistent opinions on issues over time. Rephrasing poll questions reveals that many people don’t understand the issues that they have just offered an opinion on. According to polls conducted in 1987 and 1989, for example, between twenty and twenty-five per cent of the public thinks that too little is being spent on welfare, and between sixty-three and sixty-five per cent feels that too little is being spent on assistance to the poor…

The most widely known fact about George H. W. Bush in the 1992 election was that he hated broccoli. Eighty-six per cent of likely voters in that election knew that the Bushes’ dog’s name was Millie; only fifteen per cent knew that Bush and Clinton both favored the death penalty. It’s not that people know nothing. It’s just that politics is not what they know.

So what do political scientists generally conclude about the dominant factors that determine elections? Menand discusses the possible conclusions:

In the face of this evidence, three theories have arisen. The first is that electoral outcomes, as far as “the will of the people” is concerned, are essentially arbitrary. The fraction of the electorate that responds to substantive political arguments is hugely outweighed by the fraction that responds to slogans, misinformation, “fire alarms” (sensational news), “October surprises” (last-minute sensational news), random personal associations, and “gotchas.” Even when people think that they are thinking in political terms, even when they believe that they are analyzing candidates on the basis of their positions on issues, they are usually operating behind a veil of political ignorance. They simply don’t understand, as a practical matter, what it means to be “fiscally conservative,” or to have “faith in the private sector,” or to pursue an “interventionist foreign policy.” They can’t hook up positions with policies. From the point of view of democratic theory, American political history is just a random walk through a series of electoral options. Some years, things turn up red; some years, they turn up blue.

None of us really wants to believe that the outcomes of elections are entirely random. I would suggest that this is not true. Even if the core reasons why an election went one way rather than another are not due to germane issues like policy evaluation, they still happen for SOME reason. And if the portion of the populace that swings an election one way or the other is this ignorant – and I have no doubt that they are – then they are also easily manipulated. This is why campaign consultants get paid enormous amounts of money to tell a candidate not only what to say to each demographic group, but what color their tie should be to present an image of strength, and which emotional buttons to push in Cleveland, Ohio as opposed to Ottumwa, Iowa. Armed with knowledge gleaned from thousands of studies of human response to various stimuli, studies that form the basis of the entire advertising industry, the consultants orchestrate the whole campaign for maximum ability to appeal to the voters. Which leads to the second explanation:

A second theory is that although people may not be working with a full deck of information and beliefs, their preferences are dictated by something, and that something is élite opinion. Political campaigns, on this theory, are essentially struggles among the élite, the fraction of a fraction of voters who have the knowledge and the ideological chops to understand the substantive differences between the candidates and to argue their policy implications. These voters communicate their preferences to the rest of the electorate by various cues, low-content phrases and images (warm colors, for instance) to which voters can relate, and these cues determine the outcome of the race. Democracies are really oligarchies with a populist face.

It’s difficult to argue with that conclusion. But it leads to all sorts of unusual contradictory opinions on the part of the public who are taking their cues from the economic and political elite. Take, for example, views on repealing the estate tax:

When people are asked whether they favor Bush’s policy of repealing the estate tax, two-thirds say yes–even though the estate tax affects only the wealthiest one or two per cent of the population. Ninety-eight per cent of Americans do not leave estates large enough for the tax to kick in. But people have some notion–Bartels refers to it as “unenlightened self-interest”–that they will be better off if the tax is repealed. What is most remarkable about this opinion is that it is unconstrained by other beliefs. Repeal is supported by sixty-six per cent of people who believe that the income gap between the richest and the poorest Americans has increased in recent decades, and that this is a bad thing. And it’s supported by sixty-eight per cent of people who say that the rich pay too little in taxes.

Such cognitive dissonance is a troubling thing, but not for those who hold it. They go along blissfully unaware of the inconsistency in their thinking because they simply don’t recognize the connection between the two issues. Like the Queen in Wonderland responding to Alice, they are quite happy and content to believe six impossible things before breakfast. But if most people are not ideologically motivated at all, then why does the political discourse seem so much more vitriolic and polarized now? One possible answer:

But Morris Fiorina, a political scientist at Stanford, thinks that it is not so, and that the polarized electorate is a product of élite opinion. “The simple truth is that there is no culture war in the United States–no battle for the soul of America rages, at least none that most Americans are aware of,” he says in his short book “Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America” (Longman; $14.95). Public-opinion polls, he argues, show that on most hot-button issues voters in so-called red states do not differ significantly from voters in so-called blue states. Most people identify themselves as moderates, and their responses to survey questions seem to substantiate this self-description. What has become polarized, Fiorina argues, is the élite. The chatter–among political activists, commentators, lobbyists, movie stars, and so on–has become highly ideological. It’s a non-stop “Crossfire,” and this means that the candidates themselves come wrapped in more extreme ideological coloring.

But this leaves me stumped on one question. Are the elites really divided? And if so, what about? It seems to me that they all have essentially the same economic interests. It’s obviously true that no matter which party occupies power, the government continues to expand and take up more of the available space, despite the pretensions of one side as favoring “smaller government”. Is it, rather, a false division, a diversion to make it appear that there are really two sides in opposition when in truth the two parties are both essentially subsidiaries of big business?

Postscript: Will Wilkinson is blogging about the same article. See it here.

Comments

  1. #1 Ruidh
    August 24, 2004

    Is this really so mysterious? Most people do not make decisions about who to vote for intellectually. They vote pased on gut instinct. They bring a certain set of values to the election — a set of values largely cultivated and nourished by sophisticated political operatives — and they vote their gut. Who *feels* right. So, Dukakis looks goofy in a helmet riding around in a tank (and the Bush campaign fed us that image over and over again) and people don’t want to vote for him because he makes them *feel* uncomfortable. And, believe me, political focus groups are working overtime to find out how people are feeling, not what they are thinking.

    This year’s election is all about fear. What makes you more afraid, Bush in office or Bush out of office. Right now people feel more afraid to have Bush in office and he’s losing. I don’t know what would make them fear having him out of office. I don;t even think a terrorist attack on the eve of the election would do it. Maybe a big *scare* of a terrorist attack which dosn’t play out would do it. I don’t know.

    Personally, I make my election choices based neither on intellectual activity or gut feeling. I once voted for a Republican, but I got better. But it dosn’t matter. I live in a very blue state.

  2. #2 llDayo
    August 25, 2004

    I think voters would have a better idea of who they’re in favor of if the candidates would focus on what they want to do in office and issues that affect the general public. Every year it seems that the mud-slinging gets worse and the candidates’ ideas get lost in the shuffle. The media certainly doesn’t help either as it starts focusing on the mud-slinging as well. If I were to run for president, no matter how badly the other candidate(s) try to discredit me for any past events, I wouldn’t resort to it. Instead, I’d inform the voters of my intentions while in office and make sure it is ingrained in their heads. Pointing out bad things the other candidate has done doesn’t lead to anything useful. Instead, the issues should focus on what’s wrong with the country, not who made it wrong, and how that candidate can make it better.

  3. #3 Ed Brayton
    August 25, 2004

    Ruidh-

    So what DO you make your election choices on? And sorry about your keyboard.

  4. #4 Jim Anderson
    August 25, 2004
    In the face of this evidence, three theories have arisen. The first is that electoral outcomes, as far as “the will of the people” is concerned, are essentially arbitrary. The fraction of the electorate that responds to substantive political arguments is hugely outweighed by the fraction that responds to slogans, misinformation, “fire alarms” (sensational news), “October surprises” (last-minute sensational news), random personal associations, and “gotchas.”… From the point of view of democratic theory, American political history is just a random walk through a series of electoral options. Some years, things turn up red; some years, they turn up blue.

    None of us really wants to believe that the outcomes of elections are entirely random. I would suggest that this is not true. Even if the core reasons why an election went one way rather than another are not due to germane issues like policy evaluation, they still happen for SOME reason….

    I don’t think Menand is arguing that the elections don’t happen for a reason. His use of the word “random” is entirely epistemological. The elections are random in outcome because they cannot be predicted by any standard “democratic theory;” there are simply too many variables to consider. Even in physical systems chaos occurs “for a reason,” but it is unpredictable nonetheless. The reason is there, but it is unknowable. Unsettling, perhaps, but true.

  5. #5 Ed Brayton
    August 25, 2004

    Yes Jim, I agree with you. My own view is, like Will Wilkinson, come combination of the first and second. The second, I think, explains the first and both are essentially true.

  6. #6 Bill Ware
    August 25, 2004

    From their website:

    Family Research Council (FRC) President Tony Perkins released the following statement in response to Vice President Dick Cheney’s remarks in Iowa today regarding the Bush administration’s position on same-sex “marriage”:…

    For many pro-family voters, protecting traditional marriage ranks ahead of the economy and job creation as a campaign issue.

    (bold is in original) Any wishes we have that voters will become more informed about the serious issues is to no avail for many people like those here in rural East Tennessee and many others in the red states as well, I’m afraid. As long as President Bush is willing to play to the prejudices of ill-informed people, nothing else effects their voting decision. B

  7. #7 Ruidh
    August 26, 2004

    So what DO you make your election choices on?

    It’s pretty easy — I vote a straight Democratic ticket, though primary elections give me some dilemmas. I once voted for a Republican — Jacob Javitz for Senator from New York, but that was on the Liberal Party line. I’ve since recovered.

    I realize that politics is a game of compromises and that no candidate is going to vote the same way I would on every issue. I expect that a Democrat would at least fight the polotical power from the right and give us a fighting chance.

    I guess I’d summarize my strategy as one right out of game theory, but I am overeducated.

  8. #8 Jim Anderson
    August 26, 2004

    The Onion, as always, has the real scoop.

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